The National Prohibition Cases: Supreme Court on Prohibition

National Prohibition Cases

The National Prohibition Cases were seven legal cases that challenged the constitutionality of National Prohibition in 1920. They challenged the 18th Amendment, which established nation-wide prohibition. The National Prohibition Cases also challenged the law that enabled Prohibition to be enforced. That is, the National Prohibition Act of 1919. It is commonly known as the Volstead Act.

The lead case was Rhode Island v. Palmer. Because they were similar, the Court grouped it with six other cases. It heard them together and decided them together. There were a number of arguments. However, the plaintiffs focused on what they considered procedural defects. They sought injunctions against the Volstead Act.

Court’s Decision

Justice Willis Van Devanter announced the decision on June 7, 1920. The vote was seven to two. Thus, it upheld both the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.

Wheeler Explained

Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League explained the plaintiff’s major contentions. He also explained the Court’s decisions point by point.

  • Plaintiffs contended that that the resolution submitting the 18th Amendment was invalid. That’s because it omitted the words ‘deemed it necessary,’ which are in the Constitution. The Court held that Congress ‘deemed it necessary.’ Otherwise it wouldn’t have submitted the resolution.
  • Plaintiffs argued that the resolution was invalid because two-thirds of congressional members had not approved it. The Court held that only two-thirds of a quorum was needed.
  • Plaintiffs asserted that the Constitution requires a referendum in each state for ratification. The Court held that the Constitution only requires a state legislature or convention to approve ratification.
  • Plaintiffs maintained that the words ‘intoxicating liquor’ were not in the Constitution. Therefore, it was not possible to amend the Constitution with reference to subject matter not in it. The Court rejected that theory. But it did not explain why.
  • Plaintiffs argued that the Amendment was not legally proposed and ratified. Therefore, it was not part of the Constitution. However, the Court rejected those arguments without explanation.
  • Plaintiffs asserted that Congress could not impose legislation on a state without ratification by that state. This theory would enable states to remain wet and thwart the purpose of the Amendment. The Court rejected that theory.
  • Plaintiffs argued that the Amendment did not apply to alcoholic beverages made before it went into effect. The Court also rejection that argument without explanation.
  • Plaintiffs contended that the Amendment gave Congress and states concurrent power to enforce prohibition by appropriate laws. Therefore, states could define intoxicating liquors differently. The Court held that the Volstead Act established the minimum standard. As a result, states could could lower the permissible alcohol content but not raise it.
national prohibition cases
Wayne Wheeler

Hailed Decision

Wheeler hailed the decision in the National Prohibition Cases. He and millions of others had worked for decades to achieve Prohibition. It was a beautiful dream. Wheeler said that Prohibition would endure as one of the greatest achievements of the ages.

In spite of Wheeler’s optimistic view, National Prohibition was resoundingly repealed in 1933.

Resource

Thomas, K. The Constitution of the United States of America. Analysis and Interpretation. Washington: GPO, 2013.